On a May morning in 1843 some of the Apostles were meeting in Joseph Smith’s office in Nauvoo. Opposition to the Church was building in Illinois, and persecution of the Saints was increasing. Yet at this difficult time, the leaders called four men to leave their families, travel far from their homes, and serve missions in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands). They were the first missionaries called to a non-English-speaking mission field. The four men—Addison Pratt, Noah Rogers, Benjamin F. Grouard, and Knowlton F. Hanks—were set apart on May 23 by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and Parley P. Pratt.
The missionaries first traveled east to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they hoped to find a ship going to their mission area. When they couldn’t find one, they booked passage on a ship traveling to the Society Islands (French Polynesian Islands) in the South Pacific. They set sail on October 9, 1843.
After they had been at sea only a few weeks, Elder Hanks, a young man who had suffered from ill health, died and was buried in the Atlantic. The three remaining missionaries continued on. Their voyage took them east across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, along the southern coast of Australia, and into the Pacific.
The first island reached by the ship was Tubuai in 1844. When the natives there pleaded with the missionaries to stay, Addison Pratt left the ship to teach these people who had shown them kindness and hospitality. Serving there alone for many months, struggling to learn the Polynesian language, he baptized sixty out of a population of two hundred and organized the first branch of the Church in the South Pacific. To this day, the Latter-day Saint community on Tubuai is a strong one.
Elder Pratt’s two former companions traveled on to Tahiti, where their teaching met with far less success. After a few months, Elder Rogers traveled west to the leeward islands and Elder Grouard sailed to the island of Anaa in the Tuamotus. Elder Rogers again met with little success and much opposition. When rumors finally reached him of the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, he began to fear for the safety of his family in Nauvoo, and he returned to America. He died during the exodus from Nauvoo.
The people of Anaa, on the other hand, came to greatly love Elder Grouard. He was the first white missionary of any kind to come to their island, and many of them accepted the truth he taught. He baptized over six hundred natives, organized five branches, and called local officers to serve. He wrote to Elder Pratt and asked him to come to Anaa, as there was too much work for him to do alone.
Elder Pratt responded to his companion’s invitation, and a conference of the Church was held on Anaa with over eight hundred in attendance. At this time Addison Pratt decided to travel back to Church headquarters to request more missionaries to help in the work in the South Pacific. Leaving Elder Grouard behind, he traveled first to California, then to the Salt Lake Valley, arriving in September 1848, one week after his wife and four daughters had arrived from Winter Quarters.
He shared his experiences with the Saints, taught Tahitian classes, and prepared to return to Polynesia. In 1850 he set out with a new companion, James S. Brown, and the promise that his own family and other missionary families would soon follow. They did follow, and despite growing problems with the French government in the islands, the missionaries and their families served until 1852, when they were forced to return to America.
Forty years passed before LDS missionaries were allowed back into French Polynesia. Many members had remained faithful despite the lack of contact with Church headquarters, but many had fallen away. The work began anew in 1892 and has continued with a few interruptions to this day. The gospel truth has shone in these islands for 150 years!
There are now four stakes in the Society Islands, and a beautiful temple stands in Papeete, on the island of Tahiti. The stories of the early missionaries are remembered and shared often by those who now send their own sons and daughters as missionaries to other countries and other islands.